Karen Lee: Educator Reflections

Since 2020, the Zinn Education Project has hosted hundreds of Teaching for Black Lives Study Groups. Each study group receives copies of Teaching for Black Lives and a Rethinking Schools subscription for each participant, a year-long menu of workshops and seminars to choose from, and access to a network of social justice teachers across the United States. 

In 2021, participants in the Teaching for Black Lives campaign — study groups, online classes, and/or Teach Truth Day of Action — were interviewed to reflect on their experience.

Karen Lee, a social studies teacher at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington, D.C. who is beyond their 18th year of teaching. She said,

It is traditionally described by all kinds of statistics that are reflected in communities that are under-resourced. But I like to describe our community as vibrant, as resilient. And our student body embodies all of that, and the way that they tackle academics and recognize that they get to change the trajectory of their life by pouring themselves into their education. So we are a college prep high school, but we really support the approach that college should be a choice and you should be ready for the choice, and through education at our school you will have that choice. If you want to take it, or if you want to take a career path, we support that too.

Oftentimes people describe our community by stating all of the things that folks in our community struggle with. But I would describe our community, and specifically my students, as resilient, and as hardworking, and as determined to meet the goals that they’re setting for themselves.

Listen to an excerpt of her interview below.

Full Interview Transcript

You are in a Teaching for Black Lives study group. What has been the impact of that on your school?

I think the impact of being a part of the Teaching for Black Lives study group has been both personal and professional. So often as social studies teachers — and I specifically teach in the small school, so I’m the only teacher that teaches U.S. Government — it’s hard to get collaboration going. We have, sort of, one teacher with one course, and it gets challenging in the busyness of a school day to find spaces to collaborate and to bounce ideas off of them.

So being a part of the study group gives me a group of like-minded folks that I can bring in lesson ideas, I can bring in challenges, I can bring in gaps in my curriculum, and together we can help identify how to overcome those gaps and create a space where we can have honest conversations and then walk away with lessons that are really relevant to my students, and are really engaging to where they are, and connecting things of the past and the things that they’re seeing in the world around them.

Then, personally, it’s just been fun to be with a group of really motivated educators who are working to disrupt systems and who are working to teach the fuller story of history. It just makes me feel encouraged that I’m not alone in it, and that there’s a group of teachers that are really working to support our students and their own learning, but then to also sort of broaden and focus on people’s narratives and people’s stories as a way to disrupt the dominant narrative that’s been prevalent in schools for so long.

Do you have any anecdotes from things that you’ve heard from your students, things that you’ve heard in the study groups, that speak to this both personal and professional impact that you’re describing?

A few months ago I had an opportunity to present a lesson that I co-wrote with a student of mine, and I helped facilitate a student-led activist group called “Pathways 2 Power.” That group was formed out of the loss of two of our students to gun violence four years ago. That loss really shook our community, and my students rallied around it, really wanting to give input to city leaders on how to make our city safer for them. One of the projects that they took on was fundraising and designing a mural to honor the lives of five teenagers who were slain during the course of the school year. So that was what we did year one. We’re really proud that the mural is up, and it’s still up, and it’s engaging in conversation in all different places in the city.

But my students decided that that wasn’t enough; they wanted to create a lesson around the mural to make sure that it was a conversation starter. So I co-wrote a lesson with my student, Lauryn Renford, and she and I came into the study group to workshop the lesson before we made it live. We were able to go through each of the components with a small group of educators in the study group and talk about where we thought things needed to be changed, where we needed clarification, what the overall vision was, and if we were meeting the objective. She was able to present that lesson with me in a space where she felt supported and she felt just as connected as I am, and she was really wowed by the feedback that the teachers gave. And then we went back and revised that lesson before we published it on our website, before we’d given it in community spaces.

The other exciting thing that came from being able to do that with the Teaching for Black Lives study group is that one of the teachers in that small workshop session decided that she wanted to have my student leaders come in and facilitate the lesson with her students in her class. So we were able to do that twice last year. She teaches a semester class, so we came in both the fall and the spring to be able to just watch students connect with each other with a lesson that’s all student-run. Our students connect with each other around this issue of safety and gun violence, which is so connected to our young people in the way that it impacts us, and the ripple effects for our city was really powerful. We’re going to do it again and continue to grow, but really the root of that lesson came from the affirmation and the revisions and the collaboration that started in the study group.

Is there a conversation or a meeting that really stands out to you from the year?

Some of the most powerful study group sessions have been when teachers have brought in lessons that they were working on crafting before they taught them in their own classes. And so it not only gives me a chance to see what other teachers are doing, informing my practice, but also gives me energy and excitement to see, to really take ideas to use, to collaborate with us, and knowing that we’re all working towards the same goal. I think that the encouragement that comes from being able to share a lesson with teachers really has a lasting impact and makes me excited about teaching new things and trying new things and creating new lessons. All of that stems from the collaboration that we have in the study group.

Can you talk about the Teach the Black Freedom Struggle online classes and their value?

I think the Teach the Black Freedom Struggle classes have been super impactful for me, just in my own background knowledge of the topics which I’ve covered in class for years. Being able to be in this space with somebody who has researched and dedicated their lives and written about these moments or these people in history to give an in-depth look at their full lives and the full story allows for me to just sit back and be a learner. And there aren’t a lot of spaces that teachers get to be learners — where it’s relevant to our profession, but also relevant to our interests. So, when I’m in one of these classes, I’m just absorbing information and getting excited about the content, which then obviously spills over into my classroom.

Because when a teacher is excited about what they’re learning, then it’s really easy to convey that excitement to students as they’re learning about it. I think specifically about learning about Rosa Parks and The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks session, where that dramatically changed the way that I talk about Rosa Parks and talk about her full life — and not just this moment in the Civil Rights Movement — but her full life of her advocacy efforts. All of that came from being in this space where people were so excited to talk about Rosa Parks.

Just today I was talking with a student about a picture I have of her doing yoga that’s up on my wall and how it’s a reminder for me that rest and ways to cope with stress are things that we can also learn from our leaders. That it isn’t just about one act; it’s about a lifestyle. So much of that is connected to just being a learner myself and being able to absorb information that I’m interested in.

What does it mean to you as an educator to teach for Black lives in your classroom?

To me as an educator, to teach for Black lives is really centering the experiences of students. My student population is primarily African American and so many times that perspective of history is taken out and whiteness is centered. And that’s just not the true story of the United States and of our history and of our government. So being able to stop and identify, like, “Nope, I’m going to counter that dominant narrative. And I’m going to include a fuller perspective,” means that I have to include perspectives of Black people who lived during that time. That then affirms the role that Black people have played in our forming of this country, and in resistance movements, and in every corner and sphere of our country.

Being able to name it is important when you’re teaching a group of students who don’t typically see themselves in the story of history. I think that goes so far in affirming them as people and as important people. That is at the core for me around why I teach for Black lives.

I’m wondering about this Teaching for Black Lives study group and the online classes and stuff. Are you the only one from your school who’s in those?

Yes and no.

How is that influencing you and the other teachers that are in that? How is that coming back to the school, to teachers who are not in those classes and policy? I don’t know all the other ways that that could permeate other classes, even if they’re not specifically history classes.

That’s a good question. At my school I am the history department chair, and so I get to help support a team of teachers who are working to really teach the fuller story of history. I am notorious for firing off resources and saying, “Have you read this? Have you listened to this podcast?” And some of that really stems from my time in the study group, as well as my time with the Teach the Black Freedom Struggle online classes. I’ll catch something that I know is connected to content in a history teacher’s class and want to push them or to help them make connections. From that, I’ve been able to connect my team members to other people who are doing similar work, similar content, scope, and sequences. I’ve been able to direct resources towards them, to be able to help support their classroom and to connect their classroom with that deeper and fuller understanding of history.

What would you share with educators in another city who were thinking about creating a study group? What would you tell them?

I would say do it! If you’re in another city and you’re thinking about creating a study group, you should absolutely do it. Even if it’s just you and one other person at the beginning, it’s about creating a safe space for you to have the real conversations before you do the teaching. So much of what comes out of a study group is self-reflection — and that is growth in our own areas and our gaps. So, when you’re in a community with somebody else and you’re talking about teaching and learning, those gaps become apparent and you have to ask for help. It only benefits to grow together, so find somebody and then you’d be surprised that it sort of spreads and the group grows. It’s 100 percent worth it.

Can you share your thoughts and concerns about the rapidly growing number of anti-history education bills?

Lots of thoughts, lots of concerns. When I think about the rapidly growing number of anti-history education bills, I am deeply concerned for the number of teachers who are really working hard to tell and to teach a people’s history. Essentially, there are now targets on teachers’ backs for teaching what we know to be true. That’s alarming. In an already hard profession, knowing that people are out to get you is really scary.

I was raised in Idaho and Wyoming, and I primarily went to high school and then college in Idaho. When I think back about the conversations that I was having in my history classes, I’m alarmed at the one-sidedness of it. It wasn’t until I started exploring on my own and making time to follow my own curiosity that I learned the fuller version of people’s history and the connections to perspectives and inclusion and all of the things that make history exciting and make history interesting.

If more and more anti-history bills are coming out where there’s a spotlight being shown on teachers in their classrooms that are really trying to go and counter the dominant narrative and get students critically thinking about history, and thinking about our country, and how the things of the past are connected to today — that’s becoming something that’s dangerous for teachers to do. I’m really worried about it, and I’m worried about the students that are coming out of those classrooms, and how they will engage in our world and engage in our democracy without a good understanding of how diverse it is and how diverse people’s experiences are.

I think it’s a backlash. I think that it is a response. I think it’s being pushed out of fear, a loss of power for white people. When really it needs to be looked at more as teaching truth and being able to say we’re not afraid to have the hard conversations in our classrooms, so that the next generation is understanding how the things they’re seeing are connected to long histories and how change can then come from it in order to break that narrative. Without passionate teachers being able to do that, I’m just afraid that nobody’s going to want to teach.

That was kind of an abrupt end, but it feels really abrupt. I’m just not sure why people want to be teachers when the job is so hard. And now it’s even harder for folks to go against the dominant narrative in places that are pushing these anti-history bills. So why would you do this job? There’s a lot of other jobs that can be had. But what we need are those passionate folks who have been curious, who’ve done the learning, who have done the self-identity work, and who are really centering students in classrooms and helping support them to be critical thinkers, and to understand things from multiple perspectives. Those are skills we want everybody to have, and the fact that they’re coming under scrutiny for it is really, really alarming.

Is there anything else that we haven’t covered that you’d like to share that we haven’t asked about, whether about the Teaching for Black Lives campaign, online classes, or study groups?

I think that there is power in identifying that students’ perspectives make them experts on things, and being able to center them is really at the heart of teaching and is at the heart of classroom learning. I’m happy to offer my thoughts on how and why we shouldn’t have these anti-history bills, because the opposite side is actually liberation and freedom that comes with creating spaces where students are those critical thinkers and have the structures and the support and the confidence to say, “Well, wait a minute. What about these folks that have been left out of the conversation? What were they experiencing and why are they left out of the conversation?” And if we can make those central to our classrooms, we’re all going to be in a better place.